Turner, Nat c.1800–1831
Abolitionist and rebel Nat Turner was born circa October 2, 1800, on the Virginia plantation of Benjamin Turner, the child of an enslaved woman named Nancy (the name of Nat’s father is unknown). Little is known about either parent. Family tradition holds that Nancy landed in Norfolk five years before in 1795, the slave of a refugee fleeing the revolt in Saint Domingue. Evidence indicates that after being purchased by Turner, Nancy was used as a domestic servant. Later in life, Nat Turner insisted that his father ran away when he was still a boy.
Early on, blacks and whites alike came to regard Nat as unusually gifted. Upon being given a book, the boy quickly learned how to read, “a source of wonder to all in the neighborhood” (Greenberg 1996, p. 45). As a devout Methodist, Benjamin Turner was not only aware of Nat’s literacy, he even encouraged him to read the Bible, as did his paternal grandmother, Old Bridget, who Nat later said was “very religious, and to whom I was much attached” (p. 44). Even assuming that some of what Nat later told to attorney Thomas R. Gray was exaggerated bravado—or that the white lawyer’s editorial hand helped shape the pamphlet published as The Confessions of Nat Turner (Baltimore, 1831)—there is little reason to doubt Nat’s assertion that he spent every possible childhood moment “either in prayer” (p. 45) or in reading books purchased for white children on nearby Southampton County farms and estates.
Aware of his unique abilities, young Nat “wrapped [himself] in mystery” (Greenberg 1996, p. 45). When not doing light work in the fields, Nat kept to himself and “studiously avoided mixing in society” (Greenberg 1996, pp. 44–45). Unlike other enslaved boys, he neither played practical pranks on others nor touched liquor. Told by both his mother and grandmother that he was “intended for some great purpose,” the unusually serious child devoted his limited leisure moments to “fasting and prayer” (Greenberg 1996, pp. 44–45). As was later said of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whites spoke of Nat as being too clever to be raised in bondage, and Benjamin Turner once remarked that the boy “would never be of service to anyone as a slave” (Greenberg 1996, p. 44).
In 1809, Benjamin Turner’s oldest son Samuel purchased 360 acres two miles away. Nancy, Nat, Old Bridget, and five other slaves were loaned to Samuel to help him establish his cotton plantation, a move that became permanent the following year when Benjamin died during a typhoid epidemic. It may have been at this point that Nat adopted the surname of Turner as a way of linking himself to his ancestral homeplace rather than as an act of homage to the deceased Benjamin Turner. Although the evidence for a spouse is circumstantial, the Richmond Constitutional Whig later reported that Turner married a young slave woman; this may have been Cherry, who in 1822 was sold to Giles Reese when Samuel died and his estate was liquidated. Turner was sold to Thomas Moore for $400, an indication he was regarded as a prime field hand. Despite being short of stature and a little knock-kneed, Turner’s shoulders were broad and well muscled from more than a decade of hard labor.
Embittered by the forced separation from his wife, Turner turned to fasting and prayer. He avoided large spiritual gatherings on Sundays, but at night in the quarters he willingly described what he had discovered during his solitary readings of the Bible. Sometime in 1825, while working in the fields, Turner had his first vision. “I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle,” he later recalled, “and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams” (Greenberg 1996, p. 46). Certain that he was ordained to bring about Judgment Day, Turner began to conduct religious services at Barnes’s Church near the North Carolina border. Most whites scoffed, but at least one man, Etheldred T. Brantley, an alcoholic overseer on a nearby plantation, asked Turner to baptize him before an interracial crowd at Pearson’s Mill Pond.
On May 12, 1828, Turner experienced his most epochal vision to date. “I heard a loud noise in the heavens,” he remembered, “and the Spirit instantly appeared to me” (Greenberg 1996, p. 46). The voice instructed Turner to take up the “yoke” of Christ, “for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first” (Greenberg 1996, p. 47). Warned not to act until given a further sign by God, Turner was instructed to continue teaching but not to breathe a word of his plans to his family or friends.
Several months later, Thomas Moore died, and Turner became the property of Thomas’s nine-year-old son Putnam. When the boy’s mother remarried to Joseph Travis, a local wheelwright, Turner and the other sixteen slaves on the Moore plantation found themselves under the supervision of yet another new master. When an eclipse of the sun took place in February 1831, Turner concluded that the time was near to act. He recruited four trusted lieutenants, Hark Travis, Nelson Williams, Henry Porter, and Sam Francis. Turner had known Travis for years, as he was also a slave on the Moore plantation and now under the supervision of Joseph Travis. The five initially established July 4 as the date of the uprising, but Turner fell ill, due perhaps to fasting, and the target day passed. Since evidence exists that Turner was merely part of a much larger, two-state revolt, it is also possible that he was waiting for bondmen across the border to rise first.
Turner’s precise goals remain unclear. He may have planned to establish a maroon colony within the Dismal Swamp, or the black evangelical may have preferred to leave the next step in his plan to God’s will. But once the town of Jerusalem was within the grasp of his army, he could either fortify the hamlet and wait for word of the rising to spread across the countryside or retreat into the swamp and establish a guerrilla base in the interior. According to the Norfolk Herald, Turner later confessed that he planned to conquer “the county of Southampton [just] as the white people did in the revolution” (Greenberg 1996, p. 48).
The rebels began around 2:00 A.M. on Monday, August 22. Turner struck the first blow, but failed to kill Joseph Travis with his hatchet. Hark finished the work, while others killed the four other whites in the house, including the Travis baby in its cradle. By noon the slave army had grown to roughly seventy armed and mounted men. They had sacked fifteen houses and killed sixty whites; Turner killed only Margaret Whitehead. As they neared Jerusalem, a column of eighteen volunteers attacked the insurgents. Turner’s men waded into the group, but the tide turned when reinforcements arrived. During the fighting, six of Turner’s men were wounded, and several others, too drunk to continue, abandoned the army and made their way back to the quarters. By Tuesday, only twenty rebels remained. In hopes of bolstering their numbers, Turner rode for the plantation of Dr. Simon Blunt, who owned sixty bondpeople. Understanding that the revolt had failed, Blunt’s slaves cast their lots with the winning side. When they attacked the rebels with clubs and pitchforks, Turner’s army collapsed. Among those badly wounded was Hark Travis, who survived only to be hanged on September 9.
The conventional wisdom that Turner was mentally unstable began immediately following his death on November 11, 1831. Southampton authorities refused to dignify his theology with the term “religion” and instead insisted that his desire to be free was “instigated by the wildest superstition and fanaticism.” At the height of the Jim Crow era, area whites still spoke of seeing Turner’s skull, which was retained as a curiosity. Most described it as abnormal. The publication of William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize–winning fiction, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1994), only contributed to the modern characterization of the slave general as a dangerously irrational rebel. But rural Americans in the antebellum years would have had an equally difficult time understanding the rationalist tone of Styron’s world. During the Jacksonian era, many Americans, white and black, devoutly believed that the end of time was near, and that Christ would soon return to rule his earthly kingdom. To that extent, Turner was well within the popular millenarian religious tradition of the period and was hardly abnormal for his time.
SEE ALSO Gabriel (Prosser); Mysticism; Religion; Slave Resistance; Slavery; Vesey, Denmark
Genovese, Eugene D. 1979. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Greenberg, Kenneth, ed. 1996. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. Boston: Bedford Books.
Oates, Stephen B. 1975. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper and Row.
Douglas R. Egerton
Turner, Nat 1800–1831
Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia. After living as a slave for thirty-one years, he led the most significant rebellion in the history of American slavery. Nat Turner’s Revolt, launched in southern Virginia in August 1831, attempted to overthrow the slave regime that had dominated Chesapeake society for more than 150 years. Local militia crushed the uprising, and violent reprisals spread across the region, resulting in the massacre of hundreds of enslaved Africans. For southern whites, Turner’s Revolt underscored the high costs and constant risks of preserving race slavery indefinitely. For black and white abolitionists in the North, the rebellion reinforced the idea, later espoused by John Brown, that enslaved southerners were willing and able to rebel, needing only weapons and outside support. For black Virginians, “Nat Turner’s War” was seen as the first major armed conflict in the long struggle to end slavery.
Five days after Turner was born, Virginia authorities executed Gabriel Prosser, a slave blacksmith who had plotted an uprising in nearby Richmond. As a boy, Nat must have heard stories about this legendary rebel. Turner’s African-born mother, it is believed, saw her intelligent son as “intended for some great purpose.” She noted “certain marks” on his head and chest, and she marveled when he related events that had occurred before his birth. The precocious boy built up a strong faith, combining African beliefs from his mother’s world with the Christian faith of his first master, Benjamin Turner. He learned to read, memorized passages of scripture, and felt that he was specially chosen to destroy the oppressive slave system.
As a young man, Nat Turner took a wife, though evidence regarding Cherry Turner remains sketchy. More certain is the fact that he began to experience personal spiritual revelations. He claimed that once, while plowing in a field with his mind wandering in prayer, he was addressed by the same “Spirit” that “spoke to the prophets in former days” (Greenberg 2003, p. 46). In a powerful vision, Turner “saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams.” Other visions suggested that it was time for Nat to take up that yoke himself “and fight against the Serpent” (Greenberg 2003, pp. 46–48).
By the time he reached his mid-twenties, Turner had belonged to three masters. When his latest owner, Thomas Moore, died in 1828, Nat became the property of the man’s nine-year-old son, Putnam Moore. In 1830, Putnam Moore’s widowed mother married a local carriage maker named Joseph Travis.
When a solar eclipse occurred in February 1831, Nat interpreted the dramatic event as a sign that he must commence his work. He laid plans with others to act on the holiday of July 4, but when he fell ill the date was allowed to pass. Then, on August 13, when a summer haze changed the color of the sun, Turner took this as an additional sign. He notified a handful of trusted slave collaborators to join him for a meeting on August 21, a Sunday.
The conspirators gathered in the woods near the Travis homestead, and within hours they moved through the vicinity, killing white inhabitants regardless of age or sex. After securing more horses and weapons, they planned to march on Jerusalem, the county seat, and take the arsenal, which would give them a substantial beachhead. According to the Richmond Enquirer, Turner made it clear that “indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they obtained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men too who ceased to resist” (Higginson 1861, p. 177).
Several hours after midnight, Turner and five others launched their violent offensive, attacking the home of Turner’s master and killing the Travis household, then proceeding on to other farmsteads to wreak similar vengeance. By Monday night, sixty or seventy African Americans had joined the cause, and on Tuesday morning Turner’s army set out for Jerusalem. Behind them at least fifty-seven whites of all ages had been killed over a stretch of twenty miles.
When some rebels stopped to refresh themselves at a farm three miles from Jerusalem, the pause proved fatal. The militia managed to attack the insurgents, who were off guard and poorly armed. Turner never regained the initiative, and with his supporters killed or dispersed, he went into hiding. By midweek, the militia had received reinforcements from Richmond; frightened and vindictive white soldiers and volunteers launched a harsh and indiscriminate offensive throughout the region. One cavalry company slaughtered forty blacks in two days, and they mounted more than a dozen severed heads atop poles as public warnings. But Turner himself evaded authorities for six weeks.
After an enormous manhunt, authorities captured the rebel leader in a local swamp on October 30. Turner was tried on November 5 and executed on November 11, 1831. Days before the public hanging, a young lawyer named Thomas Ruffin Gray managed to interview the insurgent in his jail cell, and he later published the account as The Confessions of Nat Turner. The text has a ring of truth and provides much of what is known about Turner and his motives.
Turner’s uprising forced Virginia’s legislature to consider openly, if briefly, a proposal for gradual emancipation. It revived the colonization movement, which many whites saw as a way to remove dangerous bondsmen and reduce the free black community. The uprising also prompted tighter restrictions on black preaching and greater caution regarding slave access to the Gospel. Among African Americans, Turner became, and has remained, both a martyr and a folk hero.
Greenberg, Kenneth S. 1996. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. Boston: Bedford Books.
Higginson, T. W. “Nat Turner’s Insurrection.” The Atlantic Monthly 8: 46 (August 1861): 173–187.
Oates, Stephen B. 1975. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper and Row.
Tragle, Henry Irving. 1971. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Wood, Peter H. 1988. “Nat Turner: The Unknown Slave as Visionary Leader.” In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier, 21–40. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Peter H. Wood